Saturday, August 25, 2007

Long time no blog...300 spoiler alert

So last Saturday I watched 300, the much-hyped, much-criticized film version of Frank Miller's graphic novel (full disclosure, I ♥ Frank Miller). Wikipedia has a good summary of the criticisms, which were many, ranging from the political implications to the historical inaccuracies. I think people who expect historical perfection from action movies need a roundhouse kick to the head, but it's always nice when they make an effort.

One thing which did amuse me was the throw-away comment about Athenians being "boy lovers," since Sparta was, I believe, downright famous for pederasty. The Guardian featured an article quoting a historian, Paul Cartledge, stating:

Few cultures have celebrated the naked male body in the way the Greeks did. But the Spartan king Leonidas refers to the Greeks as "boy lovers", suggesting they are decadent. The irony is that the Spartans were literally boy lovers: they incorporated a form of pederasty into their educational system, as a way of turning a boy into a warrior.

Zephyrus and Hyacinthus, beloved of Apollo

was a patron hero of pederasty in Sparta.

Attic red-figure cup from Tarquinia,

c. 490-480 BCE.

Another comment often echoed:

But the most controversial aspect of the film is the portrayal of the Persians. They look a bit like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The real emperor Xerxes was not a 10ft-tall god-king with multiple piercings. I can understand why the Iranians are upset about this. However, I think they're wrong to assume that the film-makers are making a comment on the Middle East, simply because it takes a very long time to develop a movie.

This is exceptionally true. For one thing, the Greeks and the Persians? Arch enemies for centuries. And the story is a fairly central one to Western culture. So to link the current supposed "Clash of Civilizations" to the Battle of Thermopylae is pretty ridiculous. For one thing, the 4th century BCE Persians were extremely different from Middle Easterners in general and Iranians in particular today. For one thing, they wouldn't be Muslim for another millennium. Which sort of involved a paradigm shift. Also, the graphic design was done when Miller published the graphic novel in 1999, before the current conflict.

Xerxes version Frank Miller, left

version Zack Snyder, right

I suppose there might be a better argument to be made that the reaction to the film was influenced by the current "clash of civilizations," which is concerning. But that's a symptom of our time, not attributable to Miller or Snyder. In short, I can't agree with this comment from Slate reviewer Dana Stevens :

If 300, the new battle epic based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley, had been made in Germany in the mid-1930s, it would be studied today alongside The Eternal Jew as a textbook example of how race-baiting fantasy and nationalist myth can serve as an incitement to total war.

Stevens missed some key points of the film. For one, she says that the law is "whatever Leonidas wants", and "if Spartan law is defined by 'whatever Leonidas wants,' what are the 300 fighting for, anyway?" As evidence, she relates this tidbit:

When a messenger from Xerxes arrives bearing news Leonidas doesn't like, he hurls the man, against all protocol, down a convenient bottomless well in the center of town. "This is blasphemy! This is madness!" says the messenger, pleading for his life.

Which raises the question: did she watch the movie? Not that it's incredibly strong on plot, but there is more to the story. First of all, the set-up to throwing the messenger in the pit is a consequence of Leonidas's belief that one should not use the cloak of "messenger" to throw threats at his people and insult his wife. Was the pit an over-reaction? Well, duh. But Leonidas is clearly a Punisher-style whackjob-maverick. Over-reaction is his forte. And as for the "there's no law" thing...uhm, a major plot-point of the movie is the fact that Sparta's "law" (as interpreted by venal, pseudo-religious perverts who have been bribed) is that Leonidas cannot defend his land and people, and so he has to try fending off the Persians with a tiny group pf volunteers.

Look, the movie is visually stunning and ideologically suspect. But if your getting you ideologies from movies based on Frank Miller graphic novels...there's a bigger problem.


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